Better Know a Blogger: SJVN on Linux, Microsoft, space roadsters, and more

In the latest installment of our ongoing Better Know a Blogger series, we talk to ZDNet’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols. We’ll take a deep dive into what makes this prolific tech journalist tick, and take a look at the future of tech through his eyes.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

The accompanying video is the latest in our Better Know a Blogger series. The purpose of this series is to get to know the real people whose articles we read and rely on every day. This time, I have the honor of speaking with my ZDNet colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

I have known Steven for more than a decade. Not only is he a top technology journalist and a consummate professional, he is a role model of mine.

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Steven, well known by his initials SJVN, stands out -- not just because he's a good journalist. He stands out because he's a great explainer. When I want to understand a networking, operating systems, or Linux-related topic, I often turn to Steven or his articles.

In this interview we talk about how he manages his workload, what it takes to keep up, the value of social media for professional visibility, the difference between Docker and Kubernetes, what Meltdown and Spectre mean for the future of processor technology and cloud computing, man's future in space, and what you should be binge-watching on Netflix.

Steven, who has degrees in English and History, has worked at NASA and has been writing about technology for more than 30 years. He is often credited for writing the very first popular article about the World Wide Web.

The accompanying video contains the full interview with SJVN. Here are some of the highlights of what we learned. Links to articles mentioned in the video are included at the end.

NASA and commercial space flight. When Vaughan-Nichols worked at NASA back in the 1980s, his job was to keep track of all the data communication circuits that were used for telemetry and for voice on the shuttle flights. He described the technology used as "held together with duct tape and bailing wire," and says, "We were using stuff that dated from the 1950s."

In the context of Elon Musk's efforts, he said, "It's nice to see someone putting serious money and serious tech together to revitalize the space program."

I asked him what he thought about the recent launch of Falcon Heavy that lofted Musk's old Tesla Roadster into orbit. SJVN explained that with a test flight, you want to send something up, but the chances are relatively good that the mission would fail. It's safer to launch an old used car than a $150 million communications satellite. That said, he told us, "I think it's really cool, and it's the best PR stunt I've ever seen for space."

Meltdown and Spectre. SJVN doesn't believe the exploits will make computing unsafe for those using all the generations of processors affected by Meltdown and Spectre. He does believe there will be some performance hits until the next generation of processors becomes available.

Steven tells us, "The only real fix for this stuff is a new generation of chips for everybody. We're going to be living with this problem in the background, hovering there like a dark cloud, for at least 10 years, if not longer." He also said, "Human stupidity is very fundamental, but now we've got stupidity built into our chips as well, which is annoying."

Microsoft, Linux, and open source. Despite SJVN being widely known as a proponent of Linux and open source, he has some very encouraging things to say about Microsoft. He told us:

Microsoft is doing some really remarkably good things on the cloud now with Azure. Microsoft has learned how to do things right, which really bugs a lot of my Linux readers, because they still want Microsoft to be the great black demon, the beast that's going to destroy them all.

He says:

It all comes down to Microsoft truly embracing open source, and that it's not embracing to extend and extinguish open source. They actually are using it because they have figured out that guess what? Open source is a really great methodology for developing software.

Favorite computer for daily use. Vaughan-Nichols primarily runs Linux, but he also runs Windows 7 and Windows 10 machines, because he has to write about those operating systems. He also has a couple of Macs.

He tells us, "My favorite at the moment, though, is the Pixelbook. I just got the newest high-end i7 Pixelbook for a ridiculous amount of money, but it's really spiffy, and also, you can use a high-end Chromebook, anyway, to also run Linux on at the same time." He's got his Chromebook set up to run both, so he can even cut and paste between both implementations.

The value of Kubernetes. In the accompanying video, Steven gives an excellent overview of how VMs differ from Docker and how Docker differs from Kubernetes. VMs run entire simulated machines, while container systems like Docker run individual apps. This means you can run more apps per physical hardware platform using Docker than using full virtual machines. But as you add more and more containers, management becomes complex.

In describing Kubernetes, he says:

The bottom line is not that the technology is so cool or so spiffy, but it saves money. It's just a lot cheaper if you're not running the machine hardware yourself. And as the higher-level automation tools get easier to use, it just makes it really easy to run a lot of servers that you don't have to pay for except when you're using them, and it just makes financial sense. It's good for the bottom line.

Kubernetes is going to revolutionize things. Kubernetes will let people really do hybrid cloud the way I think they want to do hybrid cloud, which is they've got some workloads here, they've got some workloads there. If you have Kubernetes orchestrating the entire thing, you can shift workloads about relatively easily. Kubernetes doesn't care where those workloads are.

Steven tells us, "Kubernetes is to container technologies like Docker, what DevOp programs are to virtual machines and physical servers: They're an abstract way of managing them, which makes it much simpler and easier to do."

Don't be religious about technology. We ended with some helpful advice. Steven told us, "Don't get too religious about technology. Don't be afraid to explore things. Oh, and read my stories."

Articles mentioned in the video:

Special thanks to Steven for talking to us. You can find him here on ZDNet, Twitter, and Google+.

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